Understanding School Culture

What is "School Culture"?

School culture is the behind-the-scenes context that is reflects of the values, beliefs, norms, traditions, and rituals that build up over time as people in a school work together—administrators, teachers, students, parents, and community members.

It influences not only the actions of the school population, but also its motivations and spirit (Peterson, 1999).

Understanding school culture can help us to use "a broader framework for understanding difficult problems and complex relationships within the school" (Stolp, 1994).

Sometimes called the school climate, school culture often determines how people will think and act.

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How Does School Culture Affect Teachers?

School culture can affect the way teachers relate with each other, students, parents, administrators, and the community.

Mentors help their protégé by encouraging them to understand how school culture can influence and affect them.

School culture affects how teachers define their work (Rosenholtz, 1991, p. 42).

School culture can also affect how problems are solved, the ways new ideas are implemented, and how people will work together.

A person's belief systems and values can change and adapt to the culture that is dominant in the school.

Beginners in isolated settings soon abandon their initial humanistic notions about tending to students’ individual needs in favor of a routine technical culture characterized by a more custodial view, where order is stressed over learning, and where students are treated more impersonally, punitively, and distrustfully (Rosenholtz, 1991, p. 73).

Positive school cultures engender positive attitudes toward work.

Negative school cultures—or school cultures where teachers feel unable to adapt—lead many teachers to leave education.

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Examples of Different Types of School Culture

Walk into any school—stopping by the office, the teachers' lounge, the cafeteria, and the playground — and you can gain a sense of what characterizes the school's culture. Often, what teachers are saying to each other will signal the type of climate within the school.

School cultures are thought to be located on a continuum, ranging from bureaucratic (known also as standard or tradtional) culture to collegial (or interactive) culture. And there is one type of school culture that is a death knell for longevity of teaching careers and an instigator of high teacher turnover in a school—the toxic culture—which is evident in a negative ambience and disatification that is highly palpable.

Characteristics of the bureaucratic school culture include:

  • Administrator at the helm; teachers are followers of the dictated regimen
  • Strong emphasis on standardization, or following the book
  • Teachers work in isolation with little chance for interaction with peers
  • Policies are mandated from above, with little or no input from teachers

    Bureaucratic cultures leave many teachers feeling isolated and devalued. There is little incentive to grow, and growth can be seen as threatening to others. Turf-guarding is common.

    Bureaucratic cultures also encourage individual teachers to solve the problem (which they see as a "the student's problem") in their own classrooms. Administrators and parents are only called in when the teacher cannot resolve the problem on his/her own in the classroom.

    At Eagle Elementary School, the teachers all plan independently. They are expected to solve discipline problems on their own, and although they can see how the school could improve, they tend to focus on their own classroom. The principal and teachers agree that a serious problem with a student is due to that student’s behavior or a problem at home.

Characteristics of the collegial school culture include

  • Collegiality
  • Experimentation
  • High expectations
  • Trust and confidence
  • Tangible support
  • Reaching out to the knowledge bases (ie. "going to the source of information", developing information networks rather than trying to solve problems in isolation or assuming one person has all the answers)
  • Appreciation and recognition
  • Caring, celebration and humor
  • Involvement in decision making
  • Protection of what's important (ie. not "throwing the baby out with the bathwater")
  • Traditions (ie. the rituals, ceremonies and symbols that strengthen the school culture)
  • Honest, open communication

    (Butler & Dickson, 1987])

    Collegial cultures engender a sense of cohesiveness and collaboration. Teachers are encouraged to grow. Community is treasured, and sharing of resources and ideas is commonplace.

    Collegial cultures also value involvement of parents, teachers, administrators and even students in solving problems, which are seen as a social, not individual, challenges.

    At Mallard Middle School the teachers work in teams. These teams plan instruction and solve classroom problems together. The principal and teachers agree that a serious problem with a student reflects on the school and that appropriate actions should be taken to improve it.

Characteristics of the toxic school culture include

  • View students as the problem rather than as their valued clients.
  • Are sometimes part of negative subcultures that are hostile and critical of change.
  • Believe they are doing the best they can and don't search out new ideas.
  • Frequently share stories and historical perspectives on the school that are often negative, discouraging, and demoralizing.
  • Complain, criticize, and distrust any new ideas, approaches, or suggestions for improvement raised by planning committees.
  • Rarely share ideas, materials, or solutions to classroom problems.
  • Have few ceremonies or school traditions that celebrate what is good and hopeful about their place of work.
  • (Deal & Peterson, 1998, p. 118)

    Toxic cultures engender feelings of hostility and hopelessness. The focus is on failure—failure of students, failure of programs, failure of new ideas. Energy is spent on maintaining the negative values causing high levels of stress for those unfortunate enough to be part of that culture.

    Toxic cultures value conformity. Teachers fear being different. Those who suggest new ideas are often criticized—their ideas squelched. New teachers who demonstrate a willingness to try new things and who look at things positively are resocialized to conform with the negative thought patterns in the culture. There is little cooperation—teachers are too busy protecting themselves or avoiding participation in joint ventures.

    At Junction Elementary School the teachers work in isolation. There is little motivation to try new things, and teachers often feel that they are already swamped with things to do—they just can't take on anymore. The faculty lounge has become a war zone, a place to vent discontent, and anyone who tries to lighten the atmosphere is quickly squelched. Little emphasis is put on student achievement or student needs—teachers are too busy protecting themselves and dealing with the stress they feel. Junction has a high teacher turnover rate. In the last few years, Junction has had the highest number of transfer requests in the district.

Kent Peterson (1999, pp. 4-5) shared clues for detecting both negative (toxic) culture and positive (collegial) culture by suggesting the following sample teacher statements about staff development as school culture indicators:

Negative (toxic) culture:
  • "We're doing too much already."
  • "I don't want to waste my time in that session! It won't help me at all."
  • "I need to get this week's plans done. I don't have time to think about next year."
  • "This didn't work when they tried it in 19__, and it won't work today."
  • "You're wasting your time. It won't help these kids learn."
  • "I'm already changing my curriculum/instruction/assessment/etc. I don't want one more thing to do."

Positive (collegial) culture:

  • "We use a lot of time for our own learning, but it's important."
  • "We can do a couple more sessions on this technique this semester."
  • "Let's try this out. I think it might help me a lot in the classroom."
  • "If we fit this workshop in, it will help us for next year."
  • "It didn't work the last time they tried it, but times have changed/we can learn from their mistakes."
  • "This is important to the school's improvement efforts. Let's put our time into it."
  • "This work will support the new curriculum/instruction/assessment I want to try."
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Suggestions for Helping Protégés

As a mentor, you can help your protégé to negotiate school culture in a productive way. Encourage your protégé to:

  • Listen carefully. What clues can your protégé pick up about school culture from what is being said on campus?
  • Be aware of exclusivity in associations with other faculty members. How is your protégé aligning himself? Is this a good idea in terms of the school's climate?
  • Closely examine the "big picture". How does the problem or situation your protégé is experiencing fit in the scheme of the school context and climate?
  • Be aware of choosing sides. How is your protégé aligning himself? Is this a good idea in terms of the school climate?

If your protégé is sounding dissatisfied and unhappy with the school, have her take a step back and look at the situation from another perspective—metaphorically like floating above the situation in a hot air balloon. Encourage your protégé to:

  • Find aspects of the school culture that align with his/her own goals and values. Is there anything in the situation that is salvageable?
  • Find "wiggle room" and use it. What room is there for allowances with which your protégé can feel comfortable?
  • Find out how decisions are made — and get involved. Who makes decisions on campus? What are the committees that influence working conditions? Who are the influential people to who will listen and act upon feedback from your protégé? How can the protégé become part of decision-making?

Try to help your protégé find some hope—though many schools are similar, no two schools are alike in culture. If the school culture isn't aligned with your protégé's viewpoint, or if the school culture is toxic, tell your protégé to take heart. There are other school climates that will be better aligned with your protégé's preferences. It may require perseverance or requesting a transfer to another school...but no teacher's placement is without possibility of improvement.

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More on School Culture

You can find out more about school culture online.

You can also find out more about school culture in these books:

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